Discover Kyoto’s Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan’s Cultural Capital
Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - The Golden Pavilion - Kinkakuji's Gleaming Grandeur
The Golden Pavilion, or Kinkakuji, is arguably Kyoto's most famous site. This Zen Buddhist temple gleams with the brilliance of liquid gold, presenting an unforgettable view as it is reflected in the mirror-like pond before it.
Kinkakuji was originally built in 1397 as a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. After his death, it was converted into a Rinzai Zen temple. The gleaming three-story pavilion that stands today was reconstructed in 1955 after the original was burnt down by a crazed monk in 1950.
The first floor of the pavilion is in the shinden style used for palace buildings. It has paneled wooden walls and white plastered walls. The second story introduces elements of samurai residences, with its buke-zukuri wooden exterior. Finally, the third story is built in the style of Zen Buddhist temples. The roof is gilded in gold leaf, as is the inner ceiling. This golden hue evolves through the day, appearing especially radiant during sunset.
Visitors follow a prescribed route through the grounds, starting at the main temple building before crossing the pont to view the famed Golden Pavilion across the pond. The still waters reflect the temple, creating a dazzling doubled image that looks almost mirage-like. It's breathtakingly beautiful, especially with a backdrop of vibrant autumn leaves or delicate spring cherry blossoms.
After viewing Kinkakuji from across the water, visitors circle around to the back of the pavilion. Here, the gilded facade gives way to a more natural, earthy aesthetic of unpainted wood. The juxtaposition highlights the duality of ostentatious beauty and Zen philosophy.
The grounds also contain statues, stone lanterns, pine trees, and a pond in front filled with carp. The demure moss garden exemplifies Japanese aesthetics with its simple yet profound design. Take time to sit and contemplate the view - the essence of Kinkakuji lies not in its extravagant facade, but in its representation of life's impermanence.
What else is in this post?
- Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - The Golden Pavilion - Kinkakuji's Gleaming Grandeur
- Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - Fushimi Inari Shrine - Walk Through 10,000 Vermilion Gates
- Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - Kiyomizu-dera Temple - Taking in the City Views
- Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - Arashiyama Bamboo Grove - A Sea of Green Stalks
- Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - Nijo Castle - The Shogun's Lavish Palace
- Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - Gion District - Geisha Culture in Hanamachi Alleys
- Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - Philosopher's Path - Cherry Blossoms Along a Canal
- Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - Day Trips to Nara, Osaka and Himeji Castle
Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - Fushimi Inari Shrine - Walk Through 10,000 Vermilion Gates
With over 10,000 vibrant orange torii gates winding through the hills behind it, Fushimi Inari Shrine is an unforgettable Kyoto sight. As the head shrine of the god Inari, kami of rice, agriculture, and foxes, Fushimi Inari draws merchants and businessmen seeking good fortune. You’ll see countless fox statues across the grounds, as foxes are seen as Inari’s messengers.
The main shrine area consists of multiple smaller shrines and mini-shrines where locals pray and make offerings. But Fushimi Inari’s pièce de résistance is the seemingly endless tunnel of torii gates that snakes up and around the forested mountain behind the main shrine.
As you pass under each torii, etched with the name of a donor, you’ll be spirited away into a serene, vermilion-hued world. Dappled sunlight filters through the torii and trees overhead, bathing the path in an enchanted glow. Every twist and turn reveals a new landscape to discover. One minute, you’re surrounded by dense forest; the next, you emerge onto a plateau with panoramic views over Kyoto in the distance.
It’s extremely tempting to try hiking all the way to the top of the mountain, as ambitious fitness junkies and photographers are known to do. But for most visitors, walking about halfway up is enough to experience the magic. Pace yourself and take time to appreciate the atmospheric details along the way.
Stop at tiny Inari shrines tucked off the main path to see petite fox statues swathed in red bibs. Marvel at the main shrine buildings’ imposing vermilion hue, signature of Inari shrines. Grab a bite at a food stand along the trail, where grilled skewers and chilled sake provide fuel for the hike.
The higher you climb, the more peaceful the atmosphere becomes as the crowds drop off. But be sure to descend in time to exit before the gates close for the evening. There’s nothing more magical than watching the sun set over the torii gates.
Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - Kiyomizu-dera Temple - Taking in the City Views
Perched on the lush, wooded hills east of central Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera Temple offers a panoramic perspective over the ancient city. The temple's huge verandah juts out 13 meters above the hillside, supported by 139 towering wooden pillars. Visitors who brave the steep climb are rewarded with a breathtaking vista encompassing Kyoto's sea of tiled rooftops and green mountains beyond.
In addition to the views, Kiyomizu-dera is renowned for its ancient wooden architecture and sprawling temple complex. Founded in 780 AD, its historic buildings are marvels of traditional Japanese carpentry techniques. The famous main hall has withstood fires, earthquakes, and the test of time over 1,200 years.
But it's the sweeping outlook over central Kyoto that draws most visitors. The perspective from Kiyomizu-dera's verandah takes in all of eastern Kyoto, from the tightly-packed wooden machiya houses to landmarks like Kyoto Tower. On clear days, you can even spy mountains ringing the city on the horizon. Plan your visit for cherry blossom season in early April, when swathes of pink bloom complement the traditional tiled roofs spread out below.
Don't miss the sunset - dusk here is mesmerizing as the fading light ripples across the valley below. Or come for an evening illuminations event, when Kiyomizu-dera's structures glow under the moonlight. The evening ambiance is just as impressive as the daytime panoramas.
While the outlook is stunning, mind your step - there are no railings along the steep drop! Thankfully, you can take in the scenery without getting too close to the edge. To fully immerse yourself in the views, sit at one of the small tea shops in the complex sipping matcha with the city unfurling below you.
After admiring the vistas, take time to wander the sprawling complex of shrines, pagodas, and temple halls. Stand under the massive verandah and marvel at the intricate joinery supporting this engineering masterpiece. Test your courage at the famous "stage of courage," where visitors jump off the verandah to see if their wishes come true.
Don't miss the smaller attractions like the love stones - find the one you're meant to walk between with your soulmate. Or sip from the waterfall flowing down the hillside, said to bring excellent health and longevity.
Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - Arashiyama Bamboo Grove - A Sea of Green Stalks
Looking up at the soaring stalks of bamboo, you feel as if you’re deep in an enchanted forest rather than on the outskirts of a major city. Arashiyama’s bamboo grove transports visitors to another world with its dense thicket of vibrant green bamboo.
As you meander along the gravel pathway cutting through the grove, spears of bamboo reach skyward on all sides, forming a natural tunnel overhead. Sunlight filters through the leaves, creating a moody glow. A gentle rustling sounds as the slender trunks sway in the breeze. It’s peaceful yet somewhat eerie as the thick bamboo cuts off views beyond the immediate pathway.
Some towering stalks top 25 meters, especially awe-inspiring when you realize the speed at which bamboo grows. What’s more remarkable is the grove’s proximity to central Kyoto – just a short trip across the river to the northwest. Yet this oasis of nature feels far removed from the city.
Don’t just rush through on the main path. Take time to slip down the narrower trails that run perpendicular through the grove. Here, the bamboo grows densely packed, the stalks just centimeters apart. Moss carpets the ground underfoot. At times, you feel as if you’re the only person for miles around.
While many visitors come for Instagram-worthy shots, don’t forget to put down your camera and immerse yourself in the atmosphere. Gaze up through the dense stalks and listen to the wind whistling through the leaves. Run your hand along the smooth bamboo trunks. Breathe in the refreshing scent of the forest.
Come in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid crowds. Autumn’s yellow and orange leaves scattered across the bamboo grove’s paths enhance the magic. While many seek out the famous grove, also explore Arashiyama’s overlooked temples tucked along the mountainside like Giouji and Adashino Nenbutsuji.
After reemerging from the bamboo forest, relax at a riverside cafe atop a dock jutting out into the water. Sip an iced matcha latte while watching small boats drift down the river, the Arashiyama mountains rising in the distance. It’s the perfect way to reflect on your stroll through this incredible bamboo wonderland.
Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - Nijo Castle - The Shogun's Lavish Palace
Nijo Castle exemplifies the sumptuous lifestyle enjoyed by Japan's feudal era shoguns. Constructed in 1603, this UNESCO World Heritage site served as the Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu. The elegant palatial architecture and ornate interiors provide a glimpse into how the shogun rulers lived during the Edo period from 1603 to 1867.
Entering under the grand Karamon gate guarded by elaborate metalwork and statues, you feel as if you've stepped back to the height of samurai culture. The sprawling castle complex contains multiple buildings, including the stunning Ninomaru Palace. This lavish building showcases the aesthetic style beloved by the aristocratic class with its luxurious appointments.
The Palace's six separate buildings are connected by corridors displaying fluid, graceful lines. Each room flows seamlessly into the next, adorned with intricate wood carvings, painted fusuma sliding doors, and gold leaf accents throughout. Fiery dragons swirl across ceiling panels while poetic nature scenes decorate the walls.
But the real showstopper is the floor. Over 300 golden tatami mats lining the rooms feature the artistic highlight of Nijo Castle - the chirping nightingale floors. Intentionally designed to creak musically when walked upon, these special floors acted as an alarm system, signaling the presence of intruders to samurai guards. Stepping lightly from mat to mat as they emit delicate chirps makes you feel as if you're dancing across a living soundscape.
Beyond the stunning interiors, Nijo offers sprawling gardens typical of daimyo style. Pathways meander past arranged landscapes dotted with stone lanterns and tranquil ponds. A plum arbor tree blossoms delicately in spring while vibrant maples ignite the grounds in autumn. The gardens provide an escape into nature just steps from the castle's lavish chambers.
Yet below its refined beauty, Nijo Castle hints at the darker side of the Edo Period's rigid societal structure. Remarkably well-preserved wall paintings depict ferocious tigers and dragons, symbols of the shogun's indomitable power and strength over enemies. And the famous nightingale floors protected the shogun from the lurking threat of assassins, necessary in the complex samurai feudal system.
Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - Gion District - Geisha Culture in Hanamachi Alleys
Slipping into the hanamachi alleys of Gion after dark transports you to a bygone era of geisha culture in Japan. As Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, Gion is the place to catch a glimpse of geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) gliding to appointments in neighboring ochaya (teahouses). While geisha sightings aren’t guaranteed, strolling through Gion provides a captivating peek into historic geisha customs.
Gion’s hanamachi date back centuries, tracing their origins to when the area was Kyoto’s pleasure district and home to many teahouses and okiya boarding houses. Today, Gion has two hanamachi – Gion Higashi and Gion Kobu – with exclusive ochaya teahouses where geiko entertain wealthy patrons with music, dance, games, and conversation.
As dusk falls, the lantern-lit back alleys come alive. Women in striking kimono scurry between ochaya, white makeup glowing in the darkness. The melodic strains of the shamisen (a banjo-like instrument) waft through the cool night air as you pass by ochaya with lattice-covered windows. While tourists aren’t allowed inside, you can catch flickering shadows of a banquet through the wooden facade.
To increase your chances of spotting real geiko, time your evening stroll to coincide with their work hours, typically from 6pm to midnight. Geiko commute on foot between appointments, so position yourself along hanamachi alleyways near ochaya-heavy areas like Hanami-koji Street. Be respectful by not chasing after geiko or getting in the way - a polite nod or subtle photo from across the street is fine.
For the classic Gion geisha sighting, head to Shijo Avenue around 6pm when geiko cross the bridge over the Kamo River heading to entertain at top establishments like Ichiriki Ochaya. Or book tickets for an annual dance performance, where you can see geiko showcasing their talents on stage rather than fleeting glimpses on the street.
Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - Philosopher's Path - Cherry Blossoms Along a Canal
Running beside a tranquil canal lined with hundreds of cherry trees, the Philosopher's Path gets its name from 20th century philosopher Nishida Kitaro who was known to meditate while strolling this route on his daily walk to Kyoto University. Today, the Philosopher's Path offers a relaxing escape from the city, inviting reflection as you amble beneath the cherry blossom canopy arching overhead.
Come springtime, the Path transforms into one of Kyoto's top cherry blossom viewing spots, attracting locals and tourists alike. The cherry tree tunnel stretches for just over a mile from the stately Ginkakuji Temple, also called the Silver Pavilion, to the more modest Nanzenji Temple. From late March to mid-April, fluffy pink and white blossoms adorn the branches, infusing the footpath with bursts of color set against the canal's tranquil flow.
During peak hanami season, groups picnic on tarps under the cherry trees, fueling the festive atmosphere with food, drinks and music. Vendors hawk street snacks along the Path, offering prime cherry blossom viewing fuel like takoyaki octopus balls and yakitori chicken skewers. Grab some munchies and plop down along the canal banks to soak up the cheerful hanami spirit.
But the Philosopher's Path offers serene scenery beyond the crowded cherry blossom days. The footpath follows the canal that connected major temples during Kyoto's heyday, so several small shrines and temples dot the route. Stop to admire the simple thatched roof gate marking Honen-in Temple, tucked off the main Path. At the endpoint, expansive gardens surround Nanzenji Temple, providing a peaceful city oasis.
On quieter days, enjoy having the tree-lined Path mostly to yourself, its beauty enhanced by dappled sunlight and autumnal leaves rather than crowds. The Philosopher's Path presents a perfect place to contemplate Kyoto's harmonious relationship between nature and urban life as you pass seamlessly between forested canal, neighborhood streets, and historic temples. Let your mind wander freely, opening space for your own philosophical thoughts, as Nishida Kitaro once did decades ago.
Discover Kyoto's Top 15 Sites: The Must-See Shrines, Temples, and More in Japan's Cultural Capital - Day Trips to Nara, Osaka and Himeji Castle
Though Kyoto offers plenty to keep you occupied, it also serves as the perfect base for taking quick day trips to surrounding areas. With extensive train and bus connections, you can easily zip over to major Kansai cities like Osaka and Nara for a change of scenery from temple- and shrine-filled Kyoto. Or opt for Himeji Castle to marvel at Japan's most spectacularsamurai stronghold.
Just a short train ride south, Nara provides the perfect tranquil contrast to buzzing Osaka. As one of Japan's oldest cities and the first permanent capital, Nara still retains its historic atmosphere. The town is overrun by free-roaming deer, believed to be protectors of the city's temples in Shinto mythology. Feed these suspiciously eager deer deer crackers sold by vendors, but beware of getting nibbled!
While the adorable deer steal the show, Todaiji Temple is Nara's most important site. Its colossal Daibutsu Buddha statue nearly scrapes the temple hall's roof at 15 meters tall. Equally impressive is Horyuji Temple, home to some of the world's oldest wooden structures dating back 1,400 years. The temple's peaceful grounds exude an aura of timelessness with historic halls encircling a ginkgo tree planted centuries ago. Don't miss Isuien Garden's strolling gardens with pretty ponds and temples.
Meanwhile, Osaka provides a fast-paced, big city fix with bustling Dotonbori's neon-lit food alleys, towering highrises, and amusement park rides floating atop skyscrapers. Take in city views from the Umeda Sky Building's Floating Garden observatory or zip up the futuristic Abeno Harukas for stunning vistas. Local specialties like okonomiyaki savory pancakes, kushikatsu fried skewers, and takoyaki octopus balls will fuel your urban adventures.
As Japan's second city, Osaka offers plenty for museums lovers too. The National Museum of Art's Japanese collections provide an excellent overview of the country's artistic heritage. Learn about Osaka's merchant history at the Museum of History. Or interact hands-on with technology at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. When you're ready for more tranquil pursuits, sprawling Osaka Castle and its plum orchard garden beckon.
For a taste of medieval Japan, take a quick train farther west to Himeji to explore magnificent Himeji Castle. Nicknamed Shirasagi-jō ("White Heron Castle") for its elegant white walls, 17th century Himeji Castle is the country's most spectacular surviving feudal castle. Despite hosting over 10 million visitors annually, Himeji avoids feeling overly touristy.